The best books on simple living

Emrys Westacott Author Of The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More - More or Less
By Emrys Westacott

The Books I Picked & Why

Walden: or, Life in the Woods

By Henry David Thoreau

Walden: or, Life in the Woods

Why this book?

In 1845 Thoreau built a small cabin on land owned by his friend, the philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, and conducted a two-year experiment in simple living. Walden is his account of this experiment. It's a hard book to summarize since, although quite short, it combines memoir, philosophical reflection, natural history, and social commentary. But it is beautifully written, and it has been an inspiration to countless readers who, like Thoreau, believe that we can deepen our experience of life by drawing closer to what is natural and elemental, reducing our dependency on things and, at least for a time, on other people. The book is required reading for anyone who delights in nature, is sympathetic to a philosophy of simple living, and who, like Thoreau, wishes "to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."


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A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

By William B Irvine

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

Why this book?

Stoicism is a philosophy that is primarily concerned with the practical question of how one should live. It was popular in ancient Rome but has largely been out of favour in modern times. William Irvine does a really fine job both of explaining the Stoic perspective on life and of arguing that it still has much to offer to us today. In this book he teaches specific techniques that can help us achieve the sort of contentment that the Stoics identified with happiness. For instance, imagining the loss of what we currently have can foster gratitude for our good fortune in possessing it; focusing on performing our best rather than on achieving some external goal makes us less vulnerable to disappointment due to factors beyond our control. In an especially interesting section, Irvine argues that even if, due to human evolution, certain traits such as the desire for higher status or the fear of death have become ingrained in us, we can use our rationality to become aware of this and, ultimately, to override our evolutionary programming and focus on what will bring us genuine happiness.. Irvine writes with exceptional clarity. I've used this book in philosophy courses more than once, and several students have told me that they enjoyed it so much that they bought an extra copy to give to a friend or family member as a gift.


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The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need

By Juliet B. Schor

The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need

Why this book?

Juliet Schor has written several books that examine the social pressures that lead people to work harder than they want to, spend more than they have, and live in ways that fail to make them happy. The Overspent American focuses particularly on how an excessive concern with social status fuels consumerism and, for many people, oppressive levels of debt. Schor combines rigorous research with a lucid style. She actually makes social science enjoyable to read! And I find her work isn't just enlightening about the society we live in; it can also help us to become more self-aware about the sort of influences, concerns, and desires that we inevitably absorb from our cultural environment. The book is not a mere critique, though. Towards the end, it describes an emerging trend toward voluntary "downshifting" by people drawn towards simpler living as a way of bringing their daily lives more in line with their basic values.


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How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life

By Robert Skidelsky, Edward Skidelsky

How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life

Why this book?

Philosophies of simple living are often addressed primarily to the individuals who is seeking happiness. This is largely true, for instance, of both Epicureanism and Stoicism. How Much Is Enough? shows how the questions raised by such philosophies also bear on the economic policies and political culture of rich, modernized societies. The basic argument of the book is that it is foolish for these societies to strive for endless economic growth. They are already wealthy enough to provide the basic conditions of the good life for all their citizens, including a radical reduction in the hours that people need to work. But this isn't happening because capitalism continually inflames people's misguided desire for more stuff and higher status. So the machine just keeps on pointlessly creating desires while plutocrats keep creaming off the wealth of society which could otherwise be distributed more equitably and more rationally. The book offers a highly readable history of the relevant theories and concepts while highlighting important connections between the personal and the political.


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The Complete Tightwad Gazette: Promoting Thrift as a Viable Alternative Lifestyle

By Amy Dacyczyn

The Complete Tightwad Gazette: Promoting Thrift as a Viable Alternative Lifestyle

Why this book?

This is an entirely different kind of book to those listed above. From 1990 to 1996 Amy Dacyczyn, a self-styled "frugal zealot," put out a monthly newsletter, The Tightwad Gazette. It contained all sorts of tips, tricks, strategies, and advice on how to pinch pennies. This book brings all her articles together in a single volume. For anyone committed to living simply–which usually means living cheaply–it is a goldmine. True, not all her recommendations met with my family's approval: mixing real maple syrup 50-50 with fake maple syrup received multiple thumbs down. But browsing through it is great fun, and on almost any page you'll find a salutary reminder of how you could be more frugal. And as we all know, frugality is associated with wisdom and with happiness.


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